Until the last fifty years or so, people relied almost exclusively on plants as medicines, not only for minor, common ailments, but for potentially life-threatening illnesses as well. In fact, most of our prescription drugs are based on compounds found originally in plants – quinine, for example, for many years the only effective treatment for malaria, was derived originally from species of Cinchona, a tree native to the mountains of South America. Andrew Chevallier’s The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants offers not only fascinating tidbits of the history of medicinal herbs, but descriptions, analysis of constituent compounds, and methods of preparation for home remedies.
The book begins with a brief discussion of how medicinal plants work and a summary of the various types of constituents (i.e., bitters, alkaloids, glycosides, and the like). Chevallier then reviews the development of herbal medicine, with a section following that discusses various regional histories in greater detail, including the influences among various traditions and systems (for example, Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, was very influential on Unani Tibb, a major tradition in Islamic healing; European settlers in North America learned a lot from native medicine.)
Then comes the good stuff: The first section on medicinal plants in detail provides information on one hundred of the most important medicinals in use today from around the world. It includes, for each entry, a brief discussion of the plant itself, including habitat and cultivation, a listing of important consituents, key actions (astringent, febrifuge, bitter tonic, etc.), a report on recent research, a discussion of traditional and contemporary uses, and descriptions of the parts used and usual preparations and their uses. (The common yarrow, found in many gardens, was reputedly used by Achilles for heal wounds, hence its botanical name: Achillea. It is used today for the relief of heavy menstrual bleeding and pain and as a remedy for colds, flu, weak digestion, and circulation.) This section is followed by another section on common medicinal plants (about 450 of them!) with briefer treatment of each plant: description, habitat and cultivation, parts used, constituents, history and folklore (the Romans used cabbage as an antidote for intoxication and hangover; fennel was considered in the the Middle Ages to be an antidote to witchcraft), medicinal actions and uses, related species, and cautions (because some herbs are potentially toxic in inappropriate doses or under certain circumstances: kelp, for example, should be avoided by those being treated for thyroid conditions; there are a number of herbs that should be avoided in medicinal doses during pregnancy). There is some fascinating stuff here: the juice of the potato, taken in moderate doses, helps relieve the symptoms of peptic ulcers. The fruit of the eggplant lowers blood cholesterol levels; the leaves, however, are toxic, and should only be used externally, where they make a soothing poultice for burns, cold sores, and abcesses. Rosemary helps regulate blood pressure. Lemons and garlic are good for almost everything. (My own favored cold remedy is a decoction of ginger root and garlic, with the addition of lemon juice and, if I have a sore throat, raw honey. It works.)
The next section, “Herbal Remedies for Home Use,” gives tips on growing medicinal plants, how to harvest and process them (some roots need to be sliced and dried for a year; some are toxic when fresh but valuable as medicines when dried; many valuable medicinals are protected species and should be left alone), and how to render them into the various forms in which they are administered (infusions and decoctions – teas – powders, tinctures, syrups, tonic wines, infused oils, ointments, and on). This is followed by a section on remedies for common ailments, including allergies, circulatory problems, skin problems, digestive disorders, anxiety, depression, headaches, and more. Chevallier includes a good concise bibliography, two indexes (a general index and one by ailment), and a listing of useful addresses (schools, herb suppliers, and professional organizations for the US and Canada).
This one is exhaustive and lavishly illustration – the overwhelming majority of plants listed are represented by color photographs, the section on preparations includes demonstration photos, and the history sections are livened by reproductions of medically-related images from the traditions discussed. Chevallier is sometimes rather conservative in that he elects to make his recommendations based on research findings from allopathic medicine, which in my own opinion is often alarmist and doesn’t seem to be able to develop a methodology for research with whole herbs. (Which is a consideration because more often than not, the effects of whole herbs are not the sum of the effects of the parts. For example, Ephedra, from which most decongestants are derived, is now on the scare list because of the death of a college football player who, from all indications, should not have been taking it to begin with, particularly in the form of a processed dietary supplement heavy on the ephedrine. I now have no remedy for congestion because a tea made from the whole herb was the only thing that worked for me – pharmaceuticals give me all the side effects and no relief.) Chevallier does, however, point out that many people are turning (or re-turning) to herbal remedies because many of our “wonder drugs” are losing effectiveness. He also notes that allopathic medicine is woefully lacking in effective treatments for chronic ailments, for which herbal medicine has a full arsenal. I would have liked a fuller discussion of the philosophy of herbal medicine, which is directed more toward maintaining health than toward “magic bullets” (which herbs are not), and some pretty strong statements on the importance of accurate diagnosis, which seem to be completely lacking.
On the whole, for those interested in some solid information about herbal remedies, this is a dandy book. It’s also fun just to read.
(DK Publishing, 1996)